East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

The RPG Shelf: Ex-Machina


Before I left for Pinerole, I went through my roleplaying games shelves to look for some books to put up for sale at the traditional auction that closes the gaming event.
In the last years I have started coming to terms with the fact that sooner or later I’ll have to let go of my gaming collection, and the Pinerole Gaming Auction felt like a good opportunity for a general rehearsal of what’s to come, and also a good way to recap part of the money I was spending to go to the convention.

While I was looking for suitable candidates for the auction, I found a book I did not remember I had.
It felt weird.
First, the what the heck is this? moment.
Then the instant recollection, and the soft pang of guilt, because this was a game I liked a lot, but I have not been playing for over ten years.
I had all but forgotten about it.
The game is called Ex-Machina, and it offers me a hook to talk about an issue that’s close to my heart, wherever it may be right now.

229002At the Pinerole I had a chat with my friend Umberto Pignatelli (author of the classic sword & sorcery game Beasts & Barbarians, and the man who designed the mechanics in Hope & Glory), about kids these days.
Yeah, I’m old like that. So sue me.
I kicked the discussion off by pointing out that all the younger gamers I had heard talking about games during the con were not discussing settings.
They were discussing rules. Game engines.
And they were discussing the pros and cons of the ruleset of a certain game compared to another game and its rules. They used very sophisticated technical lingo, and references to cognitive psychology and what not.
42054ab29457c60d2c7f46d8cb79909c--serious-game-role-playing-gamesThe game worlds were of little consequence in their discussions.
I heard describe that old reliable, Paranoia, as a a system focusing on a postmodern satirical demystification of the role of the Game Master. And it felt odd, because Paranoia was and is a cartload of fun and right now I can’t remember what type of dice you roll to play it, and frankly I don’t care.
Umberto listened to my grognard musings and observed that back in the day when we started gaming, there was not that great variety of systems, and basically there was little to debate in that sense.
And he is right, of course.
But still, back in the days we talked worlds, not systems.
Now it’s probably, as my friend Umberto pointed out, that I am a writer of stories, and therefore worlds are more important to me than numbers, settings are more important that rule-sets. Indeed, that’s why I like roleplaying games: they allow me to explore strange worlds, and tell stories.

Besm3Ex-Machina, that resurfaced during my sweep through the shelves, is a good case in point.
The game was produced in 2004 by Guardians of Order, and runs on their own engine, the Tri-Stat. The engine was originally developed for BESM – Big Eyes, Small Mouth, an anime-inspired generic system, and are suitably lightweight. Characters are defined by three statistics, against which checks are made using a single type of dice. Character creation is points-based.
That’s all you need to know about the engine. It’s solid, flexible, runs anything, you learn it in a moment.

But it can also get complicated, because that was the fate of generic systems back then. People started adding special rules.

200px-ExMachinaRPGBut anyway, what’s great about Ex-Machina is the settings.
Yes, plural.
Ex-Machina was presented as a cyberpunk game, but between its hardback covers were nestled four different settings that were, yes, cyberpunk, but not exactly the old Neuromancer kind of cyberpunk.
Granted, the handbook came with enough gear and setting rules to allow you to run your favorite flavor of cyberpunk, but bundled in you found four ready-made universes; they were designed by some top authors of the second generation of game design, and they were different.

Heaven Over Mountain takes place along a beanstalk, an orbital elevator. Thousands of kilometers of cables rising from the surface to orbit, carrying whole cities and settlements, and peopled by all sorts of characters, from tourists to freelancers to drifters. There’s politics and intrigue and the whole idea of verticality.

Underworld offers a dystopian future in which the characters have to make a living at the bottom of corporate-managed “ideal cities”. This is a harsh setting, and focuses on character survival. If you’ve seen the Cloud Atlas movie (or have read the excellent novel), this game is set in a grimier, even more depressive version of the technological future in that film.

IOSHI describes a post-national world, in which the characters belong to guilds and interest groups, and their online life is more important than their offline life. Heavy on augmented reality and influencers, right now this is probably the scarier of the settings offered, because it hits close at home.

Daedalus is a near future setting (they all are, but this is nearer), an apparent utopia in which everyone wears a chip and everything’s fine. Or maybe it is not. Think about a tech version of Carpenter’s They Live crossed with The Prisoner, and you’ll get an idea.

How it was?
It was great. Unusual, offbeat, not what you expected. That was the reason it was great. It provided a wealth of playgrounds for the mind, and it was cooler than a stack of refrigerators. You rolled dice, too. Maybe not in a postmodern or demystifying way, but after all, we were there to have fun.
We did not play it as much as I wanted, and finally it faded from my memory, but it’s still on my shelf, and I don’t think I’ll get rid of it.

And by the way, I promise the next post about roleplaying games will have a theme more in line with the usual subjects we talk about here in Karavansara.

Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

4 thoughts on “The RPG Shelf: Ex-Machina

  1. As a fellow “older gamer”, this is something I interrogate myself about frequently, even if it’s not as easy for me to settle down for a clear answer.

    I agree that we’ve lost part of our the taste for the actual exploration of the world we create, partly because we’ve eaten at a neverending buffet of different inspirations and ideas dissected and declined in an impossible number of variations, partly because we’re leaving in the wake of a “revolution” that brought a deserved amount of attention to practices and design in the TTRPG space, but it did so at the expense of the idea that Roleplaying game is also made of content and ideas.

    We live in an age where whether by reaction to years of tyrannical ruleship by viking-hat DMs or repetitive and unimaginative setting people have decided emergent storytelling is the hottest thing possible, that the GM is a necessarily evil that you can rid yourself of by choosing one of those brilliant (and if you ask me, soulless) DM-less games, and that having a setting that is detailed and rich is fundamentally imposing shackles to the neverending creativity of players.

    Let the player create the world he lives in, that’s the new age gamer’s motto. Emergent storytelling take to the extreme, where the player doesn’t just create story content by manipulating the preexisting elements he interacts with, but he creates the canvas against which the actions happen. The player is now author as much as he is actor, and that’s the hot new thing. It’s fine, and great things can come of it, but in this light the setting and the worlds become unwelcome guests, limitations.
    It’s stuff you have to read, and check, and remember: the mantra today is that nobody should show up to the session knowing the story or world because we’re all going to create it together.

    And so, deprived of the pleasure of discussing worlds, players resort to focusing on rules, be it because they’re genuinely interested in how they actually work and what system better allows to create the fiction they’re hoping to take part in, or because they believe said rules are part of the reason that makes the game they choose different or better, or because they believe rules play an important part in the social contract at the table, and they pick systems based on how much agency and involvement they give them, rather than for how interesting is the content of those 240 pages of stories, worlds and wonderful vistas that they deem inferior to what they may improvise in a couple seconds at the table.

    I may be slightly biased and bitter on this topic, and I also want to make clear that I really enjoy this type of emergent, collective storytelling and the game that express it (I brought Blades in the Dark to Pinerole, after all), but I feel we’re leaving a “death to the author” phase in the TTRPG space, and that never sits too well with me.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I think the lamentable nostalgia for “Old School” games (D&D Red Box? Really?) is a reaction against these new and different systems – and I think the polarization is bad.
      Claiming only the latest freeform, experimental, whatever game is the Truth is as bad as clinging to wooden game systems for the sake of nostalgia.
      In the end, for me, it’s the worlds, and the adventures – and as long as that works, it’s fine.
      But I admit I feel weird about being lectured about the games I played as a kid by kids that were not yet born when I played.
      Damn, I’m so old…

      Liked by 2 people

      • I agree completely. I’d take the new school games over the OSR movement, if held at gunpoint, precisely because what made the AD&D era special to me what the creativity and diversity that went into the creation of the various worlds. As a kid, my mind raced between the misty valley of Ravenloft and the deadly deserts of Dark Sun, between Al Quadim and Mystara, between Castle Greyhawk and Planescape. The rules were crap, the worlds were amazing.

        I wonder how we can form a new generation of authors (because roleplaying games need authors, not just rules engineers!) if we keep telling people roleplaying is about improvisation and interpretation and we shun the notion of study and craft in storytelling. Or if we try to prop up the umpteen reinvention of oldschool game sets meant to revoke nostalgic emotions, or the 178th ruleset inspired by H.P.Lovecraft’s work. Emergent storytelling in a fictional space that has been driven into the ground for 2 decades.

        Liked by 1 person

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